TOMASZ Chłoń believes that the Visegrad Group has the potential to emulate the success of the Nordic and Benelux regions, while the Polish Ambassador to Slovakia has more than just political and economic integration in mind, but “social as well, leading to stronger Visegrad cohesion and even identity, to ultimately overcome even the most potent historical tensions, such as those between Hungary and Slovakia”.
The Slovak Spectator spoke to Ambassador Chłoń about the sanctions that the European Union and Russia have imposed on one another, the potential of the Visegrad Four, the infrastructure between Poland and Slovakia and tourism links.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): The tit-for-tat sanctions that the European Union and Russia have imposed on one another have provoked intense discussions in several EU countries, with Slovak PM Robert Fico calling the sanctions senseless and harmful to the country’s economy. The Hungarian PM spoke of the sanctions in a similar tone. How are the sanctions viewed in Poland at the top political level and how do the public and the media generally view them?
Tomasz Chłoń (TCH): They are perceived by nearly everyone as a lesser evil and accepted with the belief that they will bring about a change in Russia’s behaviour. Not immediately, but still, it’s a paradox, isn’t it, that Poland, where people are probably hit the hardest by Russia’s countermeasures, is looking at the sanctions this way. The value of our exports to Russia under sanctions is close to €1 billion; in Slovakia’s case, it is €2.5 million. I’m far from underestimating even the smallest losses because they can mean individual bankruptcies. But a huge majority of Poles believe the West must defend the values it was founded upon. Pure rhetoric, expressing concern, won’t do it. It’s too short a time to judge whether existing or new sanctions against Russia will prove effective. Chancellor [Angela] Merkel suggested that the European Union should introduce new ones. It’s symptomatic, given Germany’s traditionally cautious attitude to such moves and it tells how difficult and dangerous a situation Russia has orchestrated. The problem is that many people in Western societies, and thereby their leaders as well, are impatient and expect quick results, whereas the Kremlin is patient.
TSS: What are the main concerns to have emerged in Poland in association with the sanctions? Which segments of the country’s economy might be affected the most?
TCH: The billion-euro trade sector hit by the Russian ban is our agriculture, fruit – especially apples – and vegetables. If we can’t sell them, then it’s not only producers who suffer losses, but also those who transport those goods to Russia. On the other hand, in every crisis there’s an opportunity. In this case, there’s a necessity to restructure our production and exports so that they don’t depend too much on one market. But let’s see things through a different perspective. Russia is an important partner of Europe as a whole, and Poles, of all people, would most like to see it as a friendly country. Regrettably, the West can sometimes effectively express this wish as a means of diplomacy only through sanctions like these days when Russia is “anschlussing” and waging war against an EU neighbour. At the end of the day, it’s solely dependent on Russia to make appropriate choices. Nobody can seriously think of threatening Russia existentially. Both the EU and the United States want to build mutual relations with Russia on cooperation, not confrontation. Russia is an indispensable nation for global peace and security.
TSS: What, in your opinion, is the role of the Visegrad Group in the context of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and the related sanctions, given that three of the four V4 members border Ukraine? There is also a lot of debate about the current relevance of the V4 group and the need for reforming it. What, in your opinion, makes the V4 relevant and what kind of changes might be required to meet the challenges of the day?
TCH: The Visegrad Group has the potential to emulate the success of regions such as the Nordic and Benelux. What I have in mind is not just political and economic integration, but social as well, leading to stronger Visegrad cohesion and even identity, and to ultimately overcome even the most potent historical tensions, such as those between Hungary and Slovakia. The V3, meaning Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, are already a bigger trading partner for Slovakia than Germany and Austria combined – €30 billion – and for Poland, Slovakia is a bigger trading partner than the US, with €8 billion. Let’s move from down-to-earth business to perceptions and feelings: according to various sociological researches, in 1993 only 4 percent of Czechs sympathised with the Poles. In 2004, this index was already at 40 percent, and today it’s much higher than 50 percent. The same applies to other configurations of V4 nations. For the Poles, Slovaks, Czechs and Hungarians are the most likeable nations.
The International Visegrad Fund, with a seat in Bratislava and a yearly budget of more than €10 million for medium-sized and small grants for thousands of political, cultural and social projects, has been doing historical work to forge cohesion between the peoples of the V4.
We don’t see eye-to-eye on every issue, and we view the Russian-Ukrainian conflict from somewhat different perspectives (both governments and public opinion). It’s therefore understandable that observers, analysts, the media and diplomats are raising concerns about the political unity and solidarity of Visegrad. On the other hand, the V4 has gone through various cycles in its history and what’s happening now is neither the first nor the last instance of this. We remember that some of the V4 questioned the value of a joint path to the EU because they thought they were better prepared than others. As it turned out, they were not.
Tell me, please, if Finland has a different optic than Sweden vis-a-vis Russia, do we speculate that the Nordic community is on a dangerous path of disintegration? Aren’t the V4, in a sense, on a higher level of integration than the Nordic countries? Finland and Sweden are not in NATO, whereas Denmark, Iceland and Norway are. Norway and Iceland are not in the EU. And the V4 [countries] are all members of the EU and the Alliance at the same time. With the recent NATO summit in Wales, I can see that Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary, mindful of their international security commitments, are to increase their defence budgets in the years to come.
Speaking of defence, there are very substantial projects on the regional table. There’s more than ‘just’ the EU Visegrad Battle Group, to be ready in 2016 and stay as a permanent unit, which would by itself amount to a precedent. I’m speaking about systemic and systematic defence planning, exercises and perhaps even procurement and maintenance. Speaking of interconnections, the four countries are working diligently to network in terms of roads and energy.
Hungary and Slovakia are to double the number of crossing points on their border. In this financial perspective we will link much better motorway systems and energy networks between Poland and Slovakia.
I would envisage even more ambitious regional consolidation with other partners: Austria, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Slovenia, and connecting further on to northern Europe, the Baltic states and Scandinavia. Central and eastern Europe will continue to drive economic growth in Europe, as we have done for several years. There are some weaknesses that we still face in our region. It’s part of the communist legacy whereby on both the personal and community levels we sometimes prefer individualism over teamwork. It’s a bit egoistic. We are overcoming this, I hope.
TSS: The Russian-Ukrainian crisis has made energy security an even more pressing issue in Europe. How is your homeland addressing this issue, given that Poland imports roughly 70 percent of its gas consumption from Russia?
TCH: Well, this may come as a surprise, but Poland is secure in terms of energy. God gave us coal as a national treasure and almost 85 percent of the electricity in Poland is produced by coal. Poland is changing its energy mix, but needs time to do so. We are all supporters of clean and climate-friendly energy. But if anybody wants to impose restrictions on us, killing industry and competitiveness, we have to resist it. Ambitious goals must be based on sound and intelligent solutions. It means there should be an adequate transitional period for developing renewable, gas and clean coal energy technologies. But sometimes I see a certain absurdity in the position of our partners. Some EU member states de-industrialised and moved their production to states that are not bound by high climate policy standards and restrictions like in the EU. More than that, people of those member states consume energy-intensive products twice, even three times more per capita than we do. So where’s the logic?
As to the dependency on gas deliveries from Russia, it’s going to decrease. In six months we shall open an LNG (liquefied natural gas) terminal with a capacity of 7.5 billion cubic metres. We have gas interconnectors with Germany and the Czech Republic. In 4-5 years, we will have a gas pipe linking Poland and Slovakia. The energy equation in the region is changing rapidly. Even without shale gas we will secure our gas needs, which by the way have more to do with industrial rather than individual consumption and heating. But shale remains a very serious project and we’ve just finalised the legal framework for shale gas extraction welcomed by the industry.
And let’s not forget about nuclear energy. The V4 has a strong unified position on the relevance of nuclear energy in the energy mix.
Poland is slowly but surely developing its own [programme]. Poland may have greater energy security, but other [countries], like Slovakia, the Baltic States or Bulgaria, don’t. Therefore, there is the need to pursue the very practical programme of Energy Union presented by Donald Tusk and having it worked out further by the European Commission.
TSS: Poland is the best country for doing business in eastern Europe and central Asia, thanks to its expanding consumer market and improving infrastructure, according to a Bloomberg survey. What reasons do you see behind this success?
TCH: Let me name the obvious factors and say more about unique or subjective ones. The first is the scale of the Polish economy, with close to 40 million consumers and a central location in Europe. But this can also be said about Ukraine, no? So here’s what’s different: history, statehood and also the fact that between the world wars, Poland was independent and after 1945 quasi-independent, while Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.
Poles have enjoyed a long tradition of entrepreneurship: small businesses, of which we had even more than a million during communism. We had small private farms and agriculture, and we had democratic opposition and elites, which perhaps formed the nucleus of the formation and the strengthening of the middle class. We had internal political unity regarding the foreign policy direction. So, against such a background all systemic reforms since 1989 were easier to implement. And among them, the most successful reform of how we govern ourselves at the communal level: 50 percent of the budgets of our communes is generated locally.
Furthermore, we are grateful for the support from the EU member states, which so generously accepted the cohesion funds that we have been able to use in order to catch up for the time lost afterWorld War II.
TSS: A lack of road infrastructure between Slovakia and Poland is frequently cited as an obstacle to further economic cooperation. How do you see prospects for building more interconnecting roads?
TCH: This is progressing slowly. People used to complain, but then “suddenly” we had 3,000 kilometres of motor and expressways, from zero in 1989, and another thousand or so are coming. Our ultimate goal in terms of road links with Slovakia is to have three major motorway links: Western (Bielsko-Biała-Žilina), Central (Krakow-Martin) and Eastern (Rzeszów-Košice). Logistics and transportation is still quite untapped since we should be as interconnected as Benelux, Germany and Austria. We should be a parallel central-European route for the Nordic countries, the Baltics and the Russians to transit goods, and for tourism on the North-South axis, from Helsinki, Tallinn and St Petersburg. I am disappointed that the winter Olympics project failed, because it would have sped up the central corridor. But let’s not cry over spilled milk. The Tatras, Krakow, Poprad and Spiš should make the best options in terms of tourism.
TSS: Poland has been featured by Slovak media, frequently in tabloids, in connection with Polish food products. What, in your opinion, is the reason behind the fact that Polish food products have acquired a negative reputation here?
TCH: First of all, it was a smear campaign generated by competition. But there were other factors, such as distributors like Tesco commissioning cheap products from Poland instead of quality ones. The broader context has also been the policy to boost the production and consumption of Slovak products. I was so surprised by this smear campaign, because in Poland people generally think that Polish food is one of the best. It has an 80-percent share of our domestic consumption. Your mainstream media, not only tabloids, were reporting on some individual incidents in Poland, while remaining silent on much more serious and deadly issues in Europe. I understand competition, but if public officials publicly say that they don’t believe the reports of the World Health Organization, where it is stated that Polish food belongs among the safest in the world, then you can make your own opinion.
TSS: Since Poland is a border country, people on both sides of the border might generally assume that they know their neighbours well. Do Poles and Slovaks know each other well enough?
TCH: Oh, sure, we know about each other much more than about others, for example, through the direct experience of 15 million visits both ways. You come shopping here because we have good products and competitive prices. We come for skiing or thermal baths because you have quality resorts. But it’s much more than that, of course. I don’t know any other state in the world with the exchange rate of złoty on the first page of the biggest dailies, or the weather forecast for Warsaw every morning on popular FM Radio. There are Polish actors playing main roles in Slovak movies and the other way around. There are Slovak footballers in the Polish Premiership. The [two countries’] presidents have met three times since the two and a half months that Andrej Kiska assumed his office.
TSS: Has the tourism potential been fully explored between Slovakia and Poland? What aspects of Slovakia are attractive to Poles?
TCH: The geography of Slovakia, the landscape, is both familiar and unknown. For example, you have four-fifths of the High Tatra mountains, our common Tatras. For me personally, this landscape is so admirable because I come from a flat part of Poland. More and more Poles visit the Small Carpathian Wine Route. So, Poles “discovered” Slovakia long ago. And tourism is a powerful means to build and forge this regional identity – the Visegrad identity.
We pulled off fantastic trans-border joint ventures: a wooden church architecture route in the picturesque eastern mountainous region of the border area and a bicycle route around the Tatras. Untapped potential remains in [the form of] some European funds that we could use to promote trans-border tourism more effectively, even not just in the border region, but to cover our entire countries from Košice to Szczecin.